Am I wrong to want to distance myself from a new friend due to their relationship choices? I recently made a friend via our children’s daycare. Although we get on well, our relationship probably was accelerated by my wanting to support her through an on-and-off relationship with a man she has described as emotionally abusive.
Recently her ex-partner has begun to grovel for forgiveness, which is a usual pattern after their breakups. I’m worried that he is wearing her down and she is spending time with him again. This man is a major focus of our conversations and a large amount of energy.
I understand victims often return to abusers but I feel drained at the idea of them uniting and separating once more, and no longer want to focus so much thought on him. I’m also appalled by his homophobic, rightwing and racist views.
The fact she even considered a relationship with someone with these views makes me wonder about our own compatibility. If they are to unite, I want nothing to do with him and he isn’t someone I want my children to have contact with. In any case I have started to wish for more distance between me and this new friend, which also makes me feel guilty. What should I do?
This letter has been edited for length
Eleanor says: If you genuinely think this guy is abusive then one of the worst things that could happen for your friend is her support network distancing themselves because they want to get away from him. This is one of the ways that being in an abusive relationship mars your life: being the site of his drama makes her seem high-drama, too.
People are seldom perfect victims, and she may well have taken him back, shared his hateful views or behaved poorly too. But it’s a sad situation when a person who’s in a royal mess starts to seem to the people around them like they just are a mess. It sounds like she is having a totally horrible time: an alcoholic partner, who whittles away at her self-worth, from whom she isn’t going to break free any time soon, and a friend (presumably others too) whose patience is wearing thin.
Part of why people return to abusers is that they feel there’s nothing better for them out there. There’s an imaginative gap between where you are now and the idea that things could be better. Friendships, in which people can experience microcosms of patience or love and hear about other kinds of relationships, can really help bridge that gap.
That said, it is extremely wearing to hear the same problems over and over again from friends in these situations. It can start to feel like there’s an expectation that each conversation or hangout will be dedicated to installment #694129 of “what the boyfriend did next”. And since you’re not getting his tearful reunions or flattery, you just get the 100-strength, uncut, undiluted bad.
I think there is a halfway point between distancing yourself entirely and continually hearing the same things. You could say to her – once, clearly, and then not again – that you don’t like him, you don’t think it’s a good choice to be in a relationship with him and you don’t want to keep giving this amount of time to discussing him. You could stress that you’re here for a friendship with her. That might even help remind her that there are parts of her that aren’t just reactions to him.
It can be really difficult to have these conversations because it feels like such a high social-cost thing to do. So sometimes we wind up just drip-feeding our disapproval instead; an eye roll here, a purse of lips there. We hope it will add up to what we want to say, without the difficult bit of actually saying it. But often those small signals are far more corrosive than one tricky conversation, without the clarity that conversation brings.
There’s nothing wrong with being clear that you disapprove of this man’s choices; it might even give her license to feel the same way. Just be careful you don’t accidentally reinforce the idea that he’s the only one who’ll stick with her.
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